BATTLEFIELD EARTH: a space opera with all the grandeur of a packet of crisps (2000 in Film #19)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of May 12th, Roger Christian’s Battlefield: Earth

What makes a bad movie? It’s a question that might be harder to imagine than you think. No filmmaker, from Ed Wood through to Orson Welles, sets out to make a bad movie. Roger Christian and John Travolta certainly didn’t set out to make Battlefield: Earth into a bad movie, and yet, objectively, they produced one of the worst pictures in cinema history.

Bad movies are as subjective as great comedies. For every one person who laughs like a drain at Some Like It Hot, another will be thrilled and excited by Batman & Robin. How do you quantify the poor quality of a piece of art? Cinema is seen differently by millions of people. Which means there are audiences out there who truly believe Battlefield: Earth is not just an enjoyable film, but a good one. A film of objective, critical and technical quality. After watching Christian’s film, what would you say to someone of that opinion if you don’t share it? The best response would likely be to wish them well, get on with your day, and vow never to set eyes on the picture again. That, believe me, is what I plan to do with Battlefield: Earth. Once was, without doubt, more than enough.

My position, then, as a critical amateur, is that Battlefield: Earth is not just a bad movie, but an objectively terrible one. It has absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever and I can honestly say, with some degree of factual certainty, that it was the first American made film of the 21st century, made on a significant budget with any sense of cultural capital, to achieve that. Travolta suggested it would be “like Star Wars, only better”. It ended up being a record breaking achiever (tied only with Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls) of Golden Raspberry Awards, the ‘Razzies’ being the tongue-in-cheek Academy Awards for terrible cinema. It failed to make back it’s ultimately sizeable budget. And any hopes on the part of the producers it might spawn a sequel or franchise to rival George Lucas’ magnum opus soon vanished into the ether.

Battlefield: Earth stands, almost squarely in the middle of the year 2000, as an abject example of how *not* to make a film, and time, you can trust, has not been any the kinder to it.

Battlefield: Earth came together, of course, thanks to the tenacity of one man: John Travolta. He damn near willed the picture into existence.

An avowed Scientologist since the mid-1970’s, Travolta since then had wanted to bring L. Ron Hubbard’s lengthy tome, released in 1982 just a few short years before the religion’s founders death in 1986, to the big screen. He truly believed, particularly in the slipstream of Star Wars, that it would be a piece of science-fiction to rival the best of them. Understandably wary of the somewhat bonkers Scientology religion, Hollywood shied away from it in their droves, and it was only after Travolta’s career was revived following his ultra cool turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in 1994, did Travolta regain the star power to get Battlefield: Earth made, with the assistance of Franchise Pictures and its owner Elie Samaha, a rather shady Lebanese producer whose game plan was to rescue the unmade projects of movie stars. What nobody told him was that some projects should *remain* unmade.

Even if you take away the eccentric foundations behind the picture, Battlefield: Earth is a bizarre and strange piece of work. The irony is that, ostensibly at least, it doesn’t have anything directly to do *with* Scientology, though critics have argued that Travolta and his screenwriter Corey Mandell encoded the picture with a fair amount of Scientological myth-making as to make Battlefield: Earth essentially a covert recruitment manual for the religion, but that almost seems to give Christian’s film deeper praise than it deserves. Whether it is a vehicle for such ideas or not, on a technical and structural level, everything about the film is inept. I mean, really… everything. The direction, the script, the cinematography, the production design, the effects, even the performances. How Barry Pepper had any career left after this amazes me. Equally, it’s a wonder Forest Whitaker didn’t just hide in a cave for years after this and isn’t still there.

Usually, when discussing a film so terrible, the post-modern consensus from cinephiles is that a film so bad must have some kind of entertainment factor, allowing us to revel in the awfulness on screen. The Room, for example, has quite justifiably gained cult status and ironically turned Tommy Wiseau into a legend, because it is absolutely, seen through the prism of unintentional comedy, a riot to watch, especially with a game audience. No such joy exists watching Battlefield: Earth. There is almost a sense with The Room that Wiseau, for all his protestations, perhaps knew deep down that he was making a bad film. Christian and Travolta—who here plays tall, dreadlocked, aggressive alien Terl—truly believe they are making the next great space opera. They fuse mythic archetypes with grand themes and ponderous speeches, while the film itself has all the sweeping charm and wonder of a bag of ready salted crisps.

The plot, such as there is one, essentially revolves around a humanity who, by the year 3000, have regressed into a nearly extinct, caveman-style existence, after a thousand years earlier the earth was invaded and conquered by the tall, menacing Psychlos, who use many humans as slave labour. Until, that is, Pepper’s Jonnie ‘Goodboy’ Tyler (no, I have no idea why he’s named like a 1950’s street racer either) ends up gaining knowledge of the entirety of human history and sows the seeds for a planet-wide human insurrection against the Psychlos and Terl, the planetary security chief. A standard, pulp sci-fi concept, right? Sure, yet one shot through with a thousand bad lines, terrible directorial choices (Christian literally shoots almost the entire picture at a Dutch angle, turning a fascinating, evocative camera style into something you never want to see again in film by the end) and hammy acting that would make William Shatner at his best blush.

Battlefield: Earth manages to appear shockingly outdated even while simultaneously not looking even remotely as good, or made with as much skill, as the better sci-fi pictures of the 50’s and 60’s. The effects are, at times, hilariously bad, especially given Christian actually worked on Star Wars! He won an Oscar for the film for set decoration, and was later Oscar-nominated for similar work on Ridley Scott’s Alien! He was around at the time Lucas was making the seminal film that Battlefield: Earth so desperately wants to be, even down to Christian borrowing (stealing) the wash transition effect Lucas employed to further evoke 1930’s serial fiction. Yet you might imagine the only reference point the director had was Ed Wood’s legendarily poor Plan 9 From Outer Space, which Battlefield: Earth can absolutely be considered the modern equivalent of, just without the retro charm.

It’s astonishing, really, that a film like Battlefield: Earth could be made even in the year 2000 and released in cinemas with anything approaching a straight face. The film cost $73 million and looks like it cost ten quid, made behind the back of a van in a quarry. It is a staggering waste of money designed firstly to appeal to Travolta’s vanity (his career survived but arguably never really recovered after this) and secondly to try and capture an audience for a gonzo cult religion that still, to this day, despite millions of followers, remains an out there bit of weirdness for mainstream audiences. Franchise Pictures went bankrupt a few years later and Samaha was brought up on charges of fraud regarding some of his motion picture dealings, which feels like a fitting postscript to the travesty of Battlefield: Earth.

Battlefield: Earth certainly never dislodged Gladiator’s spot dominating the box office, with terrible word of mouth causing a catastrophic fall off in receipts over coming weeks. The fact anyone went to see it in the first place is remarkable. The fact anyone still remembers it is unfortunate. It remains, genuinely, the worst film produced this century, as of 2020, and it is hard to imagine anything taking its crown any time soon.

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

6 – The Beach

7 – The Whole Nine Yards

8 – Wonder Boys

9 – The Next Best Thing

10 – Mission to Mars

11 – Erin Brockovich

12 – Romeo Must Die

13 – The Road to El Dorado

14 – Rules of Engagement

15 – 28 Days

16 – U-571

17 – Frequency

18 – Gladiator

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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  • Excellent article. One thing you don’t mention is that the “head” of Scientology, David Miscavige micro-managed this film to death believing that he was “improving it.” The original script was a lot darker, the writer described it as “Schindler’s List in space.” But after all the meddling,the corrupt financing and hammy acting the film became what we know and loathe today.

    • Thank you. That’s fascinating, I didn’t come across that in my research. Makes sense someone would be meddling though, given the mess that it is.

  • I am intrigued and I have never seen the film. I have many 2 hours to kill during my quarantine so I might give this one a shot!

    • Hazal, please trust me when I promise you, those two quarantine hours are best used elsewhere. You’ll never get back the time spent watch this truly awful film.

      • I took the sincere warning seriously and watched a few scenes on youtube only. (The actors do not look appealing to watch with the high judge/alien wigs. So weird.)

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